Washington is now rallying around a central, but largely unrealized, goal of education reform: improving the schools that serve the lowest-income, and often lowest-performing, students.
The education framework released yesterday by President Bush lays out one path toward this goal (see story, page 1). On the whole, it's a promising plan.
Predictably, the president sounds his education leitmotif - accountability, attained through standards such as having all children reading by third grade and frequent use of standardized tests to assess steady progress.
He proposes substantially more money to help failing schools come up to standard. Less positively, he sticks to his ultimate sanction if such schools don't measure up: tuition vouchers that allow parents to take their federal dollars to private schools.
Vouchers will be the major point of contention as Mr. Bush tries to work his plan through Congress. Democrats, and some Republicans, firmly reject the idea - both because it might reduce money for public schools and because it raises the issue of tax dollars indirectly going to church-run institutions.
But the considerable political support for more federal education aid should prove adequate to push past many obstacles. A Democratic bill introduced concurrently with the release of Bush's plan also zeroes in on low-performing schools. It would devote even more money to the task. Its sanction for persistently underachieving schools would be a thorough reorganization, or perhaps conversion into charter schools.
That approach could point to a useful compromise, spurring more options for parents within the public system. The bill's authors - Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, fresh from his spot on the Democratic ticket, and Evan Bayh of Indiana - are probable "New Democrat" allies with the administration in getting some education measure passed.
The key question is whether the federal government should force change on failing schools that take federal money and, if so, should that change be toward vouchers or something else. Vouchers still need a full test run to be widely accepted.
The president's emphasis on state and local prerogatives, including fewer federal restrictions on how money can be spent, will also spark debate. But it shouldn't be forgotten that Bush is acting from experience. His education initiatives in Texas produced measurable gains. He can now take his experience nationwide.
His optimism on the subject is an asset. That hopefulness is shared by Americans from all background and political persuasions who believe that all children deserve a chance to develop their abilities to think and learn.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society